BEIJING—At the busiest checkpoint along China's border with North Korea, about 200 trucks a day roll across the Yalu River and deliver merchandise to dictator Kim Jong Il's isolated regime. The Dandong checkpoint is one of nine road routes from China to North Korea along the 880-mile border. There are also three rail connections.
Trade bustles between the countries, so Beijing naturally flinches at accepting punishing U.N. sanctions against Pyongyang over its apparent nuclear test earlier this week.
The United States and Japan are pushing the U.N. Security Council to approve stiff sanctions on North Korea, including international inspections of all cargo moving into and out of the country to detect weapons-related material. That would mean stopping ships at sea, checking truck cargo and inspecting rail freight.
With tempers high, China has softened its opposition to sanctions, but hasn't yet made clear what measures it would support. China's ambassador to the United Nations, Wang Guangya, said Tuesday: "I think there has to be some punitive actions but also I think these actions have to be appropriate."
The task of crafting U.N. sanctions that would weaken North Korea's will to maintain its nuclear program is bedeviling diplomats. The U.S. Navy and allies' naval forces—under the umbrella of the Proliferation Security Initiative—already stop ships on the high seas that they suspect of carrying North Korean missile parts.
Even if China and Russia, both of which share a land border with North Korea, go along with a muscular U.N. plan to inspect North Korean cargo, they may not want international inspectors to take part.
"I doubt that China or Russia are going to permit the United States to go in and check what's going across in two-way trade," said Philip E. Coyle, a former director of weapons testing at the Pentagon who lives in Sacramento, Calif.
Washington has maintained some level of sanctions against Pyongyang since the onset of the Korean War in 1950. The diplomatic, trade and financial sanctions are designed partly to curb what Washington says is North Korea's counterfeiting and drug trafficking.
Japan also maintains some sanctions and reaffirmed Tuesday that it wants to stiffen them as soon as experts confirm Pyongyang's claim of a nuclear test Monday. Japan deployed jets over the Sea of Japan to examine high-altitude dust samples for radioactivity.
Experts say that inspecting ships leaving North Korean ports wouldn't be difficult. The nation's merchant shipping fleet, some 200 vessels, is largely decrepit. Spy satellites can monitor vessels flying under foreign flags that dock in North Korea.
"You can see when a ship comes in and goes out of North Korea, no matter what flag it is," said Sheila Smith, a researcher at the East-West Center in Honolulu.
But maritime ship-boarding tactics aren't always successful.
In 2003, the Bush administration began the Proliferation Security Initiative as an ad hoc global mechanism—free of U.N. oversight—to board ships and search for and seize weapons-related cargo. The program's target: North Korea.
The initiative, which Washington says more than 70 nations support, has been opaque. U.S. officials publicly acknowledge only 12 maritime interdictions.
"The Proliferation Security Initiative has evidently been a failure. North Korea has gone on and been able to assemble a (nuclear) device," said Allan Behm, a security and risk consultant in Canberra, Australia.
Attacking North Korea's overall trade may be part of Japan's strategy in coming days. It's mulling a halt of North Korean imports—largely seafood and mushrooms—worth around $116 million last year.
Chinese traders along the border with North Korea wince at any measures that might affect commerce, which has enriched them.
"You know, the economy of Dandong largely relies on trade with North Korea, and the local people are enjoying a better life because of it," Zhang Yi, the owner of the Dandong Xinlong Trade Company, said in a telephone interview.
"What damage it would do to people along the border if all trade stops!" he exclaimed.
The two-way trade between China and North Korea rose to $1.58 billion last year, although it appears to be dipping this year because of a cash shortage in Pyongyang.
Russia has only a 12-mile border with North Korea. Trade between them was $166 million in 2005, according to European Union statistics.
South Korea sustains the biggest economic lifeline to North Korea, and observers are waiting to see whether President Roh Moo-hyun rolls back a "sunshine policy" of economic engagement with Pyongyang.
Unification Minister Lee Jong Seok, speaking to a National Assembly panel in Seoul, apologized for North Korea's nuclear test, saying there would be changes to the engagement policy, but he ruled out immediately halting cooperation with Pyongyang.
Many South Koreans remain indifferent to the crisis. Some 2,195 South Koreans were traveling in communist North Korea on Tuesday, including 505 tourists who left on a three-day trip to Diamond Mountain, a money-earning resort, the semi-official Yonhap news agency said.
Diamond Mountain and the inter-Korean industrial complex in the border town of Kaesong are Seoul's showpiece cooperation projects with the North.
"If South Korea does something to interrupt these economic interactions, it is going to be very hurtful to North Korea," said Lee Dong-bok, a former intelligence official in Seoul.
(McClatchy special correspondents Fan Linjun in Beijing and Emi Doi in Tokyo contributed to this report.)
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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